Comox Valley Naturalists Society
Knowing Nature . . .
Warblers Arrive in Spring
April 28, 2006
From the perspective of a naturalist, spring is a very exciting time of year. There is a cascade of events continually unfolding. Some of these events are obvious, and others are subtle, taking more effort to discover. Once one begins to pay attention to the sights and sounds of nature, each season becomes rich with meaning.
The arrival of the first warblers of spring is one such event. For a naturalist, it becomes an annual ritual to anticipate the arrival of warblers and other migratory birds. It is fun to mark these arrival dates on the calendar, to compare with previous and future years. Often, these sorts of observations can be made right from the kitchen window.
Warblers are passerines, a large and diverse group of land birds that make up about 60% of all birds. Passerines are birds with the ability to perch on branches. They have feet with four toes, three directed forward and one back, enabling the bird to grasp a branch. Under the large umbrella group of passerines, birds are classified into many categories. One of these families is the New World Wood Warblers, or Parulidae.
In the family Parulidae, there are 53 species of warblers, 33 of which are found in BC. Warblers are small, active birds, and in most cases males are distinct from females. Most warblers are insect eaters, but many also forage for berries and nectar.
A warbler is defined as a bird that can sing “with trills, runs and quavers”. This was used to describe European warbler species, which are completely unrelated to North American warblers. In fact, North American warblers do not actually warble, though many have distinctive songs.
BC warblers are migratory, but they are occasionally seen in winter. They arrive in the spring to breed here, and in the fall migrate to the southern US, or tropical regions of Mexico and South America. Warblers are our “fair weather friends”, delighting us with their songs and colourful plumages during the spring, summer and early fall. It is best to study warblers in the spring, when plumages are fresh and bright. In the fall, warblers molt, and identification can be very confusing due to duller field marks.
The first warbler to arrive on our coast is the Yellow-rumped Warbler. Arriving in late March, they are often heard before they are seen. Their clear two-part song either rises or falls at the end. The aptly named Yellow-rump does indeed have a bright yellow rump patch, and yellow patches on the sides. Males have some yellow on the top of the head.
The throat may be yellow or white, but is more commonly yellow in our area. A yellow throat patch determines the “Audubon’s” race and a white throat patch indicates the “Myrtle” race. A grey body, with white wing bars and black streaking on the breast, offset the yellow markings.
Many warblers have unique feeding strategies. Yellow-rumped Warblers do some fly catching. They are also able to digest waxy berries, giving them energy to survive colder spring temperatures than some other species. The Yellow-rumped is one of the most common and widespread warbler species.
Unfortunately, the name of a bird can be sometimes misleading. The Orange-crowned Warbler has an inconspicuous orange crown that is seldom noticed. This non-descript warbler is commonly found at bushy forest edges. It is an even yellow, with a more olive coloured back and small pointed bill.
A good way to find warblers is to know something about their habitat. At the marsh, one is likely to encounter the Common Yellow-throat Warbler. Males have a yellow throat, and a distinctive black “bandit” mask with a white line above. Common Yellow-throats nest in wetland vegetation. Their call, “witchety-witchety-witchety” is easy to identify.
Yellow Warblers, often found in shrubby areas near water, are one of the most striking of our warblers. The males are a dazzling yellow, with fine red streaks on the breast. The females, like all warblers, are harder to identify, and it is best to have a field guide on hand. The Yellow Warbler sings, “sweet, sweet, I’m so sweet”.
A different habitat, such as an old growth coniferous forest, is a good place to find Townsend’s Warblers. With black and yellow markings on the face, these warblers are often found high up in the canopy. Often, the lazy call of the Townsend’s, “zee-zee-zee-zeezee” can be heard, but it can be difficult to locate the bird.
Several species of warblers are found on Vancouver Island, and these can be identified by anyone with good eyes, ears, and a reliable field guide. The warblers are singing, and now is the time to go out and investigate, and discover a new way to appreciate spring.
Photographer Mike Yip is the author of the best selling book Vancouver Island Birds, available at Graham Jewelers, Blue Heron Books, Bonanza Books, CR Museum, and Save-On-Foods. Visit his web site @ http://vancouverislandbirds.com
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